Martin Plissner dies; former CBS News political director

Martin Plissner, the former executive political director of CBS News who helped shape campaign coverage viewed by millions of Americans for more than three decades, died Feb. 6 at the Washington Home hospice in the District. He was 87.

The cause was cancer, said his daughter Sarah Plissner.

By the time Mr. Plissner retired in 1997, he had contributed to or led CBS reportage on political events including nine presidential elections, beginning with Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Mr. Plissner was widely admired for the depth of his expertise and for the extent of his sourcing in the political community inside and beyond Washington. “Marty is famous for knowing every county chairman in the country,” a CBS News executive wrote upon Mr. Plissner’s retirement — “both parties.”

Unlike anchors and on-screen reporters, he was not a familiar face to most viewers of the nightly news and other public affairs programs. But his behind-the-scenes role allowed him to direct the stand-up reports and visual elements that became staples of modern election coverage.


Martin Plissner, the longtime political director of CBS News, works at his desk on Nov. 3, 1972. Mr. Plissner died Feb. 6 at 87. (CBS Photo Archive)

He defended the use of exit polls and the media’s attention to what is sometimes called horse-race politics — the who’s-up-and-who’s-down reporting often derided by critics of modern journalism.

“The reason anything new about the likely outcome of a presidential race tends to dominate the day’s report is not that broadcasters are obsessed with it,” Mr. Plissner wrote in his book “The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections” (1999). “It is that this is the first thing most people want to know about.”

Some of the most intense political news involved races that were too close to call. In fact, Mr. Plissner once told William Safire, the longtime author of the “On Language” column in the New York Times, that the phrase “too close to call” had been invented at CBS in the early 1960s.

Mr. Plissner wrote frequently for publications including The Washington Post and the New York Times and forcefully promoted TV programming as a vital element of civic life. In one commentary, published in The Post in 1989, he expressed his frustration at one particularly puffed-up critic.

“On one of those weekly television broadcasts in which a quartet of sages from the print media tries to fill the intellectual void left by the yahoos whose work is aired daily,” Mr. Plissner wrote, “a panelist recently tossed off one of those profundities that distinguish this journalistic genre. The average television ‘soundbite,’ he said that he’d been told, had shrunk from 14 to nine seconds between 1984 and 1988.”

Mr. Plissner went on to argue that a sound bite in television is no different from a quotation in a written article. He examined a recent issue of Newsweek magazine and determined that the average “inkbite” was 18 words long — not enough to fill even nine seconds if read aloud.

Martin Plissner was born May 20, 1926, in Brooklyn and spent part of his youth in Baltimore. He began his studies at Yale University, served in the Navy during World War II and returned to Yale to receive a bachelor’s degree in 1948.

Mr. Plissner began his journalistic training during college working for the Yale Daily News and at a paper in New Haven, Conn.

He was a writer for ABC and NBC News and at radio stations in New York City before joining CBS.

His first marriage, to Doris Kaplan, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Susan Morrison of the District; a son from his first marriage, Micah Plissner of Los Angeles; two daughters from his second marriage, Paige Plissner and Sarah Plissner, both of the District; and a brother, Bill Plissner of Orlean, Va., in Fauquier County.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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